People constantly ask me for a definition of the commons as if a short sentence or two could begin to encapsulate the vastness and variety represented by the term “commons.” So as a quick introduction to the many dimensions of the commons — the inner and outer worlds to which “the commons” merely points to — let me recommend this seven-minute film, “Seven Short Films on the Commons,” (A thanks to Silke Helfrich for bringing this to my attention!)
The film(s) were produced by Amar Kanwar and the Foundation for Ecological Security, a leading advocacy group for the commons in India. The vignettes of each film are a lovely evocation of what the commons truly means to commoners in India. This is an important task — naming and evoking the commons — because governments and businesses of the modern world cannot see or generally refuse to recognize the commons. They are too focused on individuals shorn of social community, private property rights, and market growth.
Here are the seven succinct declarations made by each short film:
1. Recognize the signature of our commons! The film flashes words on the screen referring to things we depend upon and share without realizing it: the air, folk dances, butterflies, playgrounds, the wind, grandma’s cure, the Internet. The list goes on.
2. Recognize the Reciprocity of Our Commons! The film notes how different elements of nature of which we are a part are interdependent….which leads to another point:
3. Recognize that Our Commons are a Web of Life!
4. Recognize the Safety Net of Our Commons! The film notes that common property resources contributed about US$5 billion annually to the income of poor Indian households in 2009 – which is about one-third of India’s total rural development budget in 2009. (I’d be curious to learn how the price equivalences of value drawn from common property resources was determined, however!)
5. Recognize Our Unique Relationship with the Commons! Not open, not closed. Not private, not public. Not government, not business. Not communist, not commercial. Not yours, not mine.
5. Recognize the True Value of Our Commons! If we relate to nature only within the vocabulary of profit, then it is certain to be destroyed.
6. Recognize the Shared Ownership of Our Commons! The film notes that 126 patents have been granted to companies worldwide for using the medicinal property of the neem tree. Traditional medical knowledge belongs to all!
7. Recognize the Communities in Our Commons! The film cites a traditional love song, Nimbooda, that has long been sung by the Manganiyar community of Rajasthan, a famous troupe of folk musicians of the Thar Desert whose music has been passed on from generation to generation. The producers of a Bollywood film appropriated a version of the song sung by Ghazi Khan, copyrighting it. Now the people who keep this music alive cannot legally perform their own song without paying a royalty and seeking permission from the Bollywood film music company. The obvious point: folk music is collectively owned by the community.
I am reminded of some wonderful posters that the Foundation for Ecological Security created in 2011 for a major conference on the commons. Take a look!